Are women in these poems active equals of the men? Or are they passive victims of the men? The roles of the women in Beowulf, Widsith, The Saga of The Volsungs, and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki are not always stereotyped ones of passive homemaker and childbearer and peaceweaver, but sometimes ones giving freedom of choice, range of activity, and opportunity for personal growth and development.
Let us first of all consider the roles of women in the classic epic poem Beowulf. In Beowulf the hero makes reference to Ingeld and his wife and the coming Heathobard feud:
in that hot passion
his love for peace-weaver, his wife, will cool (2065-66)
This is a rare passage, for Anglo-Saxon poetry rarely mentions romantic feelings toward women. In fact, one’s marital status wasn’t even considered significant. For example, with the hero himself the poet never mentions whether he is married or not, likewise with most characters in the poem. Because this is a poem about the heroic deeds of men, Hildeburh excepted, the feeling between man-and-woman is downplayed, and the feeling among warriors is emphasized. Remember that the poem opens with Scyld Scefing, who came motherless to rule the Danes:
than those at his start
who set him adrift when only a child,
friendless and cold, lone on the waves. (44-46)
Scyld’s motherlessness perhaps tells the reader that the heroic, superhuman, violent deeds about to transpire are perhap...
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...metimes ones giving freedom of choice and range of activity
Alexander, Michael, translator. The Earliest English Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Clark, George. “The Hero and the Theme.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Overing, Gillian R. “The Women of Beowulf; A context for Interpretation.” In The Beowulf Reader, edited by Peter S. Baker. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin, 1996.
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